There were many means by which food production rose during the twentieth century – despite the earlier, apocalyptic forecasts of Malthus, who believed that demand would outstrip supply as population grew, leading to mass starvation. These included the use of improved machinery and methods of irrigation, as well as that of new fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, not to mention the selection of higher-breeding crops, which helped to increase rice yields (for example). All this is a reminder that mankind has been selectively producing crops and breeding animals for centuries – and that we rub up against that fact of life every time we shop in Tescos or watch the Derby.
The central contention of Owen Paterson's speech today on genetically modified foods (GM) is that they are only the latest manifestation of this selective principle, but that Europe is falling behind in the development of this new technology – which is good for farmers, consumers and the environment. (The Environment Secretary claims that in other parts of the world, "plants are better protected against pests and insects are better protected against accidentally being sprayed".) Previous governments have also banged the drum for GM, while previous oppositions have marched to a different rhythm.
So it was, for example, that Tony Blair was gung-ho for GM, but William Hague's Conservative opposition called for a moratorium. Paterson's speech demonstrates how parties in government tend to get behind British companies and technology, and his is being billed as the most vigorous pro-GM statement made under the Coalition to date. But the heart of the Environment Secretary's speech isn't technical so much as moral: that in a world in which population growth is soaring, GM is but the latest means of ensuring that there's enough food to feed a hungry world. His is an optimistic vision that sees capitalism as the great feeder of humankind – and socialism, by implication, as the great producer of the mass famine of the Great Leap Forward.
It's part of the same positive worldview which holds that human ingenuity and inventiveness will provide new technology and products that will end reliance on CO2-emitting oil and coal – and that these are better route to prosperity and sustainability than central targets, state planning and over-fast, growth-reducing and poverty-spreading decarbonisation. It will be asserted that Malthus will be proved right in the long run (and pointed out that access to a healthy diet isn't universal, and that the use of pesticides can be harmful). But whether he will or won't be, Paterson's speech gives the lie to the claim that conservatism is invariably a pessimistic creed. Rather, it is an optimistic one – or, to be more accurate, one full of hope for the future.
And regardless of Malthus's folly or wisdom, the Environment Secretary's claim that GM is only the latest manifestation of selection is right. The last word lies with Paterson: "Farmers wouldn’t grow these crops if they didn’t benefit from doing so. Governments wouldn’t licence these technologies if they didn’t recognise the economic, environmental and public benefits…Less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU…While the rest of the world is ploughing ahead and reaping the benefits of new technologies, Europe risks being left behind. We cannot afford to let that happen. The use of GM could be as transformative as the original agricultural revolution was. The UK should be at the forefront of that now, as it was then."